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WA State Legislature Passes Flawed “Hirst Fix”

by Dan Von Seggern

Our state legislature began this year’s session by passing a bill to remove the 2016 Whatcom County v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board (“Hirst”) decision’s protections for groundwater and streamflows. Hirst reaffirmed existing law and required that counties ensure water is both physically and legally available before granting building permits.   This common-sense rule provided a critical check on withdrawals of groundwater that affect streams and rivers, and harm fish habitat.  Unrestricted groundwater withdrawals can impair the rights of senior water holders, including users of existing wells who are now seeing their wells go dry.  Worse yet, the bill takes a step towards reversing the Foster v. Ecology decision, which requires that impacts to streams be mitigated with replacement water, rather than with non-water (“out-of-kind”) habitat restoration projects.

Concerned that having to show that water was actually available could slow development in rural areas, counties, the building industry, and property rights groups pressured the Legislature to find a “fix.” On January 18, the Legislature passed a bill (ESSB 6091) that allows counties to approve building permits that rely on permit-exempt wells.

  • In WRIAs where Ecology has adopted an instream flow rule that specifically addresses permit-exempt wells (for example, WRIA 18, the Dungeness River), compliance with the applicable rule is sufficient to show water availability for a building permit.
  • Where Ecology has adopted a rule that does not speak to permit-exempt wells, a plan to restore and enhance streamflows is to be generated. In WRIAs that created watershed plans under the 1998 Watershed Act, the bill requires that these plans be updated to include projects to “measure, protect, and enhance streamflows,”   and to offset impacts of permit-exempt wells.
  • If no watershed plan was previously developed, the bill directs formation of “watershed restoration and enhancement committees” composed of stakeholders. These committees are heavily weighted towards stakeholders who have an interest in developing water, rather than preserving the resource, and CELP is concerned that they would not have adequate incentives to truly restore and enhance the streamflows.
  • In watersheds where Ecology has not yet adopted an instream flow rule, an applicant need only show that water is physically present (in other words, there is no requirement to mitigate or compensate for water use).   This is the situation in about half the state’s watersheds, including some that are experiencing high growth pressures such as the Cowlitz River (WRIA 26).

ESSB 6091 stresses a “watershed restoration and enhancement” approach, rather than requiring that water use from permit-exempt wells be mitigated.  While the goal of protecting and enhancing streamflow is a worthy one, this bill has significant flaws and will not provide adequate protection for streams, fish, or people who rely on them.  Development is essentially unrestricted in most areas until the new plans are completed (2019 – 2021).  The damage to streams will likely be done before any regulations are established.

ESSB 6091 also undermines mitigation of future water use by authorizing “out-of-kind” mitigation projects (such as streambank restoration or addition of large woody debris to a river channel; by definition, such projects do not provide replacement water) to compensate for new water uses, rather than requiring replacement water to maintain streamflows.  CELP believes that out-of-kind projects will become the path of least resistance in compensating for water use, and streamflows will inevitably be impaired.  Even the best habitat is of little use if there is insufficient water in the stream.

CELP is especially disappointed that ESSB 6091 lacks any metering provision, or any other method to determine how much water is actually used. Without metering, compliance with the limits in RCW 90.44.050 or with any limits set by the respective watershed committees cannot be verified, and there will be no way to know whether the impact of permit-exempt wells is actually being “offset.”   Because quantities cannot be verified, water use under this scheme is in practice unlimited.  Simply relying on users not to exceed allowable limits is poor policy and could make much of the watershed protections plans meaningless.

ESSB 6091 requires Ecology to conduct a pilot study of “the overall feasibility” of metering groundwater withdrawals (including permit-exempt wells) in the Dungeness (WRIA 18) and Kittitas county (WRIA 39) areas.  But no pilot project is needed.  Ecology’s rules in these areas already require that new permit-exempt wells be metered, and metering has already proven feasible. Rather than directing Ecology to waste time and resources on these studies, a better approach would be to require metering on all new permit-exempt wells, so that the data needed to ensure that streamflow impacts are compensated for can be gathered.

Finally, ESSB 6091 establishes a legislative “task force” with the mission of identifying changes in law to effectively overturn the Supreme Court’s 2015 Foster v. Ecology decision.  Foster held that water use that impairs an instream flow or other senior water right must be mitigated by providing substitute water at an appropriate place and time.  This provided important protections for salmon, which depend on water being present in streams at the time it is needed for migration, spawning, and rearing.  The bill authorizes a list of pilot projects that appear intended to demonstrate out-of-time, out-of -place, or out-of-kind mitigation.  CELP is concerned that this provision is designed to reach a preordained conclusion that out-of-kind mitigation is acceptable, and to pave the way for its broader use.  The consequences to Washington’s rivers and the fish that depend on them may be disastrous.


Washington Water Watch: November Edition

In this issue, an article on recent victory in court on the Leavenworth Hatchery Clean Water Act Case, a story on CELP’s founding director, Rachael Osborn, being recognized by AWRA-WA with their award for Outstanding Contribution to Water Resources, a welcome to CELP’s newest staff member, Emma Kilkelly, information about our December CLE, and more.

Read the November edition of Washington Water Watch here.


Washington Water Watch: June 2017 Edition

In this issue, find pictures of our recent Celebrate Water event, an update on the Spokane River rule, links to CELP’s Columbia River Treaty media and document library, and an opportunity to speak up for the Hanford Reach National Monument!

Read the June issue of Water Watch here.


Protecting Spokane River summertime flows goes to court

News Advisory – Court hearing on June 9

Contacts:

  • Dan Von Seggern, Center for Environmental Law & Policy, (206) 829-8299, dvonseggern@celp.org
  • Andrew Hawley, Western Environmental Law Center, (206) 487-7250, hawley@westernlaw.org
  • John Roskelley, Center for Environmental Law & Policy, (509) 954-5653 john@johnroskelley.com
  • Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater, (425) 417-9012 okeefe@americanwhitewater.org
  • Tom Soeldner, Sierra Club, Upper Columbia River Group, (509) 270-6995 waltsoe@gmail.com

Next step in process essential for future of river and Spokane community

Issue: When water is flowing in the Spokane River during hot summer months, should the River’s water be protected for community recreational and aesthetic use and river fish and wildlife — or should it be available to be taken from the River by the State Dept of Ecology through the granting of water rights?

State court: Thurston County Superior Court, Hon. James Dixon, Judge.

Where: Thurston County Courthouse, 2000 Lakeridge Drive, Olympia

When: Friday, June 9 1:30 PM.

Spokane River issues before the court

The beloved Spokane River flows through the second largest city in Washington state, including spectacular waterfalls and a deep gorge. In most summers, enough water flows in the River to support fishing, river rafting, and other outdoor recreation. River advocates asking the Court to hold the Department of Ecology to its duty to protect fish and wildlife, scenic, aesthetic and recreational values, and navigation, when establishing the minimum summer flows allowable for the Spokane River.

Overwhelming public support…ignored

Nearly 2,000 comments, including boater surveys and aesthetic inventories, were submitted to the Department of Ecology during the public comment period on the draft rule. In setting instream flows, the Department of Ecology’s decision failed to take into account boaters who use the Spokane River, fishermen who pursue the river’s wild redband trout, and businesses that depend on Spokane River recreation. Ecology also failed to conduct a basic assessment of the scenic values of the Spokane River as it flows through the gorge and Riverside State Park – important to users of the Centennial Trail and others.

Overall the state agency ignored all public comments in support of protecting the Spokane River and adopted unchanged its flow rule of 850 cubic feet per second (CFS) – near-drought level river flows that will jeopardize the Spokane River and its public uses.

Need to protect recreational use of the Spokane River

River advocates retained Dr. Doug Whittaker and Dr. Bo Shelby, experts in recreation and aesthetic flows from Confluence Research and Consulting, to evaluate appropriate flows. Dr. Shelby and Dr. Whittaker participated in establishing aesthetic flows for Spokane Falls, and are the foremost national experts on flows. They concluded that the Department of Ecology’s adopted flows are inadequate to support most types of recreational boating on the river. Higher flows in the Spokane River, when available, should be protected.

Fish need water

Spokane River fisheries need cold, abundant water. The Department of Ecology erred in concluding that more water is bad for fish, thereby justifying its decision not to protect Spokane River flows. In response, petitioners submitted a report prepared by Prof. Allan Scholz, retired Eastern Washington University fisheries biologist and professor. (Prof. Scholz is author of a multivolume treatise on Eastern Washington fisheries, and is one of the foremost experts on Spokane River redband trout.)

Prof. Scholz determined that the state’s flow rule – setting the Spokane River flow rate below the Monroe Street Dam in the summer at 850 CFS – is inadequate to protect and restore a healthy redband trout population, and that the scientific study prepared in support of the rate was flawed. The Department of Ecology could have accommodated the needs of river recreationists and fish without sacrificing fish.

Protecting aesthetics in the city’s heart

“Our city owes its origins, its beauty, and a great deal of its past and present life to the Spokane River,” said Tom Soeldner, co-chair of Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group based in Spokane. “It would be a betrayal of the river and our identity if we did not maintain healthy and aesthetic river flows.”

Flows not protected in the flow rule are flows lost to the river

The Department of Ecology has a duty under state law and the public trust doctrine to adopt flows that are fully protective of all public instream values, including fish and wildlife, recreation, navigation, water quality, and scenic beauty. Again, flows that are not protected are at risk to be diverted from the Spokane River for out-of-stream water uses, including Idaho pumpers, the city of Spokane, and the office of the Columbia River’s Spokane-Rathdrum ASR project.

Appellants are Sierra Club, Center for Environmental Law & Policy and American Whitewater, and are represented by attorneys Dan Von Seggern (CELP) and  Andrew Hawley (WELC).

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Watersheds to Watch: WRIA 56 Hangman (Latah)

by Elan Ebeling
 

Hangman or Latah Creek, originates in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Idaho, and flows across the border into Washington, where it stretches through the city of Spokane and joins with the Spokane River. WRIA 56 encompasses the section of the creek in Washington State, starting from the border with Idaho.

The Hangman Creek Watershed has a long history of agriculture. In the early part of the 20th century, thousands of acres of forest were cleared for farming. Modifications to straighten stream channels, and new irrigation channels and ditches resulted in erosion, poor water quality and increased flash flooding that continues in the present day.

Agriculture continues to be the most significant use of land in the Hangman Creek Watershed (about 65%), and a century of heavy farming and population growth has taken its toll on water quantity, quality, and fisheries. According to the Hangman Creek Water Resources Management Plan, during the summer months, the average flow is below 3 cfs. Low flows also contribute to temperature and water quality issues. Hangman Creek has been described as “one of the most degraded waterbodies in eastern Washington State,” and fails to meet Washington State water quality standards for temperature, fecal coliform, and pH. In addition, the degraded water from Hangman Creek flows into the Spokane River every year along with heavy sediment from erosion, contributing to algae blooms and other water quality issues on the Spokane.

Although the creek’s native name Latah means “fish” in Nez Perce, few remain in Hangman Creek. As a result of the region’s long history of agriculture, fish habitat has gone through dramatic changes in the last century. While Hangman Creek once had healthy populations of native redband trout, salmon, and steelhead, the alterations made to vegetation patterns and channels to accommodate farming, as well as increased sediment and temperature in the river has resulted in heavily reduced populations of trout, and near nonexistent populations of other game fish.

These problems have been exacerbated by the proliferation of domestic permit exempt wells, and the over allocation of water rights. Ecology’s Water Availability Report states that the Department of Fish and Wildlife has limited most surface water sources in Hangman Creek through Surface Water Source Limitations, and that the majority of water has already been appropriated.

An instream flow rule for WRIA 56 is crucial to the future of Hangman Creek to protect critical fish habitat and combat worsening water quality, yet none exists. The Hangman Creek Watershed Planning Unit was unable to come to a consensus on exact values for instream flow recommendations by the time their 2005 Watershed Management Plan was published, but agreed that they wanted an instream flow rule. What’s more, their plan stated that they would notify Ecology if a consensus could not be reached in the next phase of planning, and expected Ecology to complete the process and enact a rule if necessary.

Despite the completion of an instream flow study on Hangman Creek, no rule exists for WRIA 56, and information on the current status of rulemaking is sparse. Although setting instream flows will not solve Hangman Creek’s severe pollution and erosion issues, it is critical to preserve what little water remains, as population growth predictions and increased demand for water resources only point to more issues in the future. As acknowledged by the WRIA 56 planning unit, rulemaking is ultimately the responsibility of the Department of Ecology. CELP urges Ecology to act now to develop an instream flow rule to protect the Hangman Creek watershed.

If you are interested in helping to secure protections for the Hangman Creek watershed, please email CELP at contact@celp.org.


Washington Water Watch: February Edition

Check out CELP’s February edition of Washington Water Watch! In this issue: an update on water legislation making its way through the State Legislature, an article on the Grays-Elochoman & Cowlitz watersheds, and updates on our upcoming events.

Read the February issue of Water Watch here.

 


January 2017 Edition of Washington Water Watch

Check out the latest edition of our monthly newsletter, Washington Water Watch. In this month’s issue you’ll find an article on the current water bills in the Washington State legislature, an update on CELP’s recent motion for summary judgment in the Leavenworth National fish hatchery case, an article on the Lyre-Hoko watershed, and a notice about our upcoming Spokane event, Winter Waters.

Read the January 2017 issue of Washington Water Watch here.


Court Upholds Dungeness Instream Flow Rule that protects River and Fish

News Release
October 25, 2016

 

Contact:

Dan Von Seggern (Center for Environmental Law & Policy)
206.829-8299
dvonseggern@celp.org


 

Court Upholds Dungeness Instream Flow Rule that protects river and fish!

Seattle, WA – On Friday, October 21, 2016, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor upheld the Instream Flow Rule for the Dungeness River basin, denying a challenge from a group of property owners and developers.  The Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP) intervened in this matter to defend the Rule, working with the Department of Ecology.  CELP Staff Attorney Dan Von Seggern argued the case along with Ecology’s attorneys.  After the decision, he stated:  “This is a win for the environment and for water management in Washington.  The Dungeness Rule strikes a balance by protecting streamflows, fish, and senior water users, while still providing water for responsible development.  CELP is pleased with Judge Tabor’s decision and hope that this Rule will provide a guide to protecting other rivers in our state.”

In upholding the Rule, Judge Tabor held that the Rule was not unlawful and that Ecology did not exceed its authority when it adopted the Rule.  He also reaffirmed that permit-exempt wells are subject to the “first-in-time” system of water appropriations used in Washington.

The Dungeness River is home to steelhead, bull trout, and four salmon species.  Most of these fish are listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  Low river flows, particularly in summer and early fall, block upstream migration of spawning salmon and risk causing extinction of these fish.  Historically, much of the River’s flow has been diverted for irrigation, although irrigators have agreed to limit withdrawals to no more than one-half of the river’s summer flow.  Uncontrolled development using private (“permit-exempt”) wells further depleted streamflows and added to the pressure on fish populations. The Dungeness Rule protects instream flows that are needed to support salmon populations and other instream values, while allowing new residential development through mitigated use of water from permit-exempt wells.

The Dungeness watershed is in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and is unique in the Northwest as the only coastal watershed that is dry enough to require irrigation for agricultural crops.  The River is relatively short, flowing 32 miles from the Olympic Mountains to the Strait.  It is used by chinook, coho, chum, and pink salmon as well as steelhead, cutthroat, and bull trout.  All salmon stocks are depressed relative to historic levels, and chinook, chum salmon and bull trout are listed as Threatened under the ESA.  Insufficient stream flow has been identified as a key cause of reduced fish levels.

The Dungeness Rule was developed over a 20-year period through a collaborative process that included state, local, and Tribal governments, property owners, environmental groups, and water users. “This rule is an example of how rules can be set to make sure water resources in the rivers and streams are protected,” said Trish Rolfe, CELP’s Executive Director.

Water for development is provided through a water bank, which ensures that streamflows are not depleted by water for development.  Amanda Cronin of Washington Water Trust explains that the Dungeness Water Exchange “provides an efficient one-stop shop for individual home builders in the Dungeness Valley.  Eligible homebuilders simply begin the building permit process at the County and then submit a mitigation application and one-time payment to the Exchange.”

Judge Tabor ruled from the bench and a written decision is expected in the coming weeks. The case is Bassett et al. v. Ecology, Thurston County case No. 14-2-02466-2.

Dungeness6 - Copy 800px

Dungeness River © Steve Farquhar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Appeals Court: clean up Spokane River PCB pollution

News Release – August 17, 2016

Dept of Ecology must redo permit for Spokane County’s Wastewater Treatment Facility consistent with water quality laws

Contacts:

  • Rachael Paschal Osborn (Sierra Club) 509.954-5641 rdpaschal@earthlink.net
  • Dan Von Seggern (Center for Environmental Law & Policy) 206.829-8299 dvonseggern@celp.org

Spokane – On August 16, the Washington State Court of Appeals issued the third legal decision in favor of Spokane River advocates seeking to stop more PCBs from being added to the Spokane River from the Spokane County’s wastewater treatment facility. Three courts have now ruled that the Department of Ecology (“Ecology”) failed to do what the law requires: analyze whether the County’s discharge of PCBs has potential to violate state water quality standards, and if so, then impose appropriate limits to prevent such violations. The Appeals Court left intact an earlier ruling that the Spokane River Toxics Task Force is not an adequate or legal substitute for pollution control limits.

Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP) filed the lawsuit against Ecology in 2011, and praised the Court’s ruling. “The Court decision is another important step to clean up PCBs polluting the Spokane River,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, with Sierra Club and CELP.

In rejecting the appeal by Ecology and Spokane County, the Appeals Court stands with earlier decisions that, because the 2011 permit lacks any limit on PCB discharges, it violates the Clean Water Act, and that other terms of the permit are vague and unenforceable. The Board remanded the permit back to Ecology to do over.

The Spokane River is among Washington State’s most contaminated river for PCBs. Exposure to PCBs through ingestion of Spokane River fish represents a public health hazard.  In 2008, the Washington State Department of Health issued fish consumption advisories, recommending limited or no consumption of fish from Lake Roosevelt and the Spokane River.

In 2011, Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group and CELP filed this suit and a companion lawsuit in federal court to compel Washington State and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to uphold water quality laws for the Spokane River. The Spokane Tribe intervened in support of the federal lawsuit. In that case, a Seattle federal judge ruled that EPA was wrong not to require the Washington State to prepare a clean-up plan for Spokane River PCBs.

“The Clean Water Act requires the Department of Ecology to protect our public waters by evaluating a new facility’s potential for pollution and placing appropriate limits on discharges,” said Dan Von Seggern, staff attorney with the Center for Environmental Law & Policy. “Here, the court affirmed that Ecology must evaluate and limit PCB discharges from Spokane County’s wastewater treatment facility. This ruling is an important step in reducing PCB pollution in the Spokane River.”

Sierra Club and CELP are represented by attorney Richard Smith of Smith & Lowney PLLC.

Links:

More on the 2013 ruling upheld by state courts

The state’s pollution court, the Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB) ruled that the Toxics Management Program in Ecology’s 2011 permit “is “confusing, vague, and lacks definition of key terms. More importantly, it lacks deadlines by which Spokane County is to undertake and/or complete actions to reduce PCBs in influent to the facility. It lacks mandatory language requiring Spokane County to actually undertake necessary actions to achieve reductions in PCBs in both influent and effluent. . . . [R]ather than requiring Spokane County to meet water quality standards, the [Toxics Management Program] only asks that the County take steps so that ‘in time the effluent does not contribute to PCBs in the Spokane River exceeding applicable water quality standards.’ . . . The Permit must require Spokane County to comply with water quality standards . . . .”” (Paragraph 13, p 23-24) This requirement will need to include compliance with the Spokane Tribe’s downstream water quality standards that were adopted by the Tribe and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2003.

Additionally, the Board ruled that the Regional Toxics Task Force fails “to require that “goals be achieved by a specified date. Nor does [this permit condition] establish an objective standard against which its accomplishments can be measured . . . . [The Toxics Task Force permit condition] does not impose any restrictions on quantities, rates, and concentrations of PCBs being discharged from point sources into the Spokane River. While the Board finds that the creation of the Task Force is a positive step toward bring the Spokane River into compliance with water quality standards for PCBs, it is uncertain that the Task Force will achieve any of its stated goals or achieve a measurable reduction in the discharge of PCBs. . . . Ecology is directed on remand to modify the [Toxics Task Force permit condition] to make clear that compliance with the Permit’s requirements take precedence over the work of the Task Force.”” (Paragraph 17, pp 26-27)

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July Issue of Washington Water Watch

Click here to read the July issue of Washington Water Watch.

In this month’s issue of Water Watch, read an update on the Enloe case, a background of the Chehalis watershed and recommendations, articles on the H2KNOW Cammpaign, Ecology’s draft CAFO permit, and an introduction of our Summer 2016 Legal Intern. In addition, learn more about CELP’s special Summer Membership special!